Music by Prokofiev and Shostakovich show mere politics cannot supress creativity

New recordings of Prokofiev and Shostakovich reveal the power of creativity to transcend even the harshest political environments.
Shostakovich in 1938, when he expected to be arrested at any moment. Sovfoto / UIG via Getty Images
Shostakovich in 1938, when he expected to be arrested at any moment. Sovfoto / UIG via Getty Images

Listening to the opening bars of Prokofiev’s Cello Sonata in C Major is a eureka moment. A haunting, late-career piece for cello and piano, it does so many of the things that great classical music is popularly supposed to do that it could almost act as a calling card for the genre.

Tuneful elegance? It’s full of it. Emotional profundity? Ditto. Great musicianship employed in the creation of beauty? Absolutely – from its opening bars, the cello’s sound is as rich and evocative as the smell of autumn woodsmoke. And in a backstory that few great pieces seem to be without, it was brought forth in sorrow. Prokofiev composed it in 1949, when the Soviet Union had banned his music, plunging him into debt shortly after his estranged wife had been sent to prison.

With the release of a new recording from 29-year-old German cellist Leonard Elschenbroich, the piece is deservedly back in the spotlight. What’s more, it’s not the only great new recording of a Soviet composer to have come out recently. The Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra have also just released a new take on Shostakovich’s remarkable Symphony No 13 – with unlikely backing from the Huddersfield Choral Society sounding as Russian as a bear stuck up a fir tree.

Although their styles are very different, Prokofiev and Shostakovich have inevitably found themselves yoked together as Soviet Russians and contemporaries. Their lives and work reflect both the pressure and isolation of creative work in the Soviet Union and the remarkable creative successes that were achieved nonetheless. There’s an irony to this. Even long after their deaths, their music remains closely identified with the system that they tried to transcend.

This might have proved frustrating to them – if Prokofiev’s cello sonata sounds like anything, it’s an attempt to escape the present, not commemorate it. Listening to the new recording (with pianist Alexei Gryn­yuk and including music from Prokofiev’s contemporary Dmitry Kabalevsky), it’s not easy to place as music from the mid-20th century. Tune out a little and its rich romanticism sounds a bit like Brahms.

Elschenbroich’s performance brings to life Prokofiev’s wringing out of the expressive possibilities of the cello. Focusing as the piece does at first on the cello’s lower register, Elschenbroich’s playing has an almost catarrhal rasp to it, the heavily vibrating strings on those bottom notes filling the air with thick sound. As the piece develops and the pitch rises, the cello becomes almost candied, though kept in rhythmic check by extended passages plucked out in pizzicato and the insistent tick-tock of the accompanying piano. Together it forms a bittersweet whole that’s easy on the ear but hard to shake from the memory

The new Shostakovich recording could hardly be more of a contrast. Where Prokofiev’s piece isn’t immediately easy to place in time and space, Shostakovich’s music is unmistakably mid 20th century and as Russian as can be.

A vocal symphony that sets Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poem Babi Yar to music, Shostakovich’s work commemorates the notorious Nazi genocide site of the same name in Kiev. To state the obvious, this means it was never intended as easy listening, but while the piece is often sombre it’s anything but austere. In its own way, the symphony also looks back, this time to Russian folk and the music of Mussorgsky – fans of Boris Godunov will recognise his imprint in the dramatic string and brass arrangements.

Scored for bass soloist and male choir, the music even becomes unexpectedly jaunty in places. The second movement, for example, corresponds to a section in Yevtushenko’s poem exploring the power of the fool to cock a snook at tyranny. In Shostakovich’s hands it becomes an astonishing collision of dancing woodwind, rattling percussion, blasting male vocal power and drunken brass. On top of this, the bass soloist Alexander Vinogradov sounds wonderfully nimble, making the booming bass notes ring with clarity and what sounds to the ear of a non-Russian speaker like a healthy dose of wit.

The symphony was yet another Soviet piece with a difficult start in life. It was first performed in 1962, and Shostakovich’s choice to musically arrange a poem that had landed its author in hot water showed that his lifelong experience of political pressure had done little to dent his creative bravery. The key issue was that Yevtushenko’s poem was not just an attack on a Nazi atrocity, but on the Soviet refusal hitherto to fully acknowledge the Babi Yar massacre as part of the Holocaust. Running up to its premiere, the composer’s first choice of bass soloist and conductor pulled out, while Yevtushenko was obliged to rewrite some lines. A complicated birth perhaps – but by the standards of Shostakovich’s earlier career, it was a relative breeze.

Throughout his working life, Shostakovich see-sawed from favour to ostracism and back, acting as a sort of cultural shuttlecock tossed by political shifts within the Soviet Union. He saw his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk first wholeheartedly praised as the pinnacle of Soviet art on its 1934 premiere, then savagely attacked for “formalism” just a few years later. His patrons and many friends were swept away by Stalin’s purges – the great leader himself reportedly winced and laughed through a performance of Lady Macbeth – while Shostakovich beat a retreat towards a more conservative style, albeit not one diluted in intensity. His wartime symphonies saw Shostakovich return to favour, only to fall under suspicion again during another purge (this one in 1948) that strove to turn Soviet culture away from outside ­influences.

Prokofiev’s career was arguably even harder. Returning to Russia from (officially sanctioned) exile in the West in 1936, he was given relatively free creative rein during the Second World War, only to come under the hammer in the same 1948 purge as Shostakovich. Prokofiev’s recently estranged wife, meanwhile, was sentenced to 20 years hard labour (of which she served five) for espionage – a charge she fell under for trying to send money to her mother in Spain. Losing state approval, Prokofiev’s work was withdrawn from public performance, and the composer died the day that the death of Stalin himself was announced in 1953. Overshadowed to the last, notice of Prokofiev’s death appeared on the last page of a 166-side edition of Pravda otherwise devoted entirely to Stalin.

It’s tempting to read these experiences in the composers’ work. The 1937 premiere of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, for example, had audiences weeping, so clearly did it reflect to them the stresses and losses of the period’s purges. It’s hard not to melt with sympathy when you hear anecdotes of the stress the composer was under. According to a friend’s account, Shostakovich was so sure he was due for a bleak fate in the 1930s that he “waited for his arrest at night outside his flat on the landing by the lift, so that at least his family wouldn’t be ­disturbed”.

But Prokofiev and Shostakovich have also stubbornly resisted attempts to reframe them simply as cultural martyrs. They may have struggled, but they remained working within the system – and their music is now seen as one of its great cultural pinnacles. Shostakovich, who far outlived Stalin, even joined the Communist Party in 1960. This may have been an act of expediency to make it easier to work, but it isn’t the mark of a dissident either. This makes it hard for anti-communists to champion them – neither composer was quite the sacrificial victim they might have wished them to be. Indeed, their continuing creativity can be galling for some critics, as it implies that Soviet Russia wasn’t simply a machine for crushing souls but a place where the composers simultaneously bridled and thrived beneath official ­restraint.

As the times when Prokofiev and Shostakovich worked start to fade from living memory, their work may no longer be read as evidence of how a caged bird sings. If anything, their music shows creativity – found anywhere – can resolutely evade attempts at capture and ­confinement.

Feargus O’Sullivan is a regular contributor to The National.

Published: December 11, 2014 04:00 AM


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