Russia went through hell in the 20th century (at present it appears to have graduated into purgatory), and its many great artists bore witness to its suffering, either by confronting it directly; or by dreaming, like the early Christians, of the peace beyond the apocalypse; or by simply getting out and moving on. The Fine Art Music Company, a too-well-kept secret in Philadelphia, presented a taste of that survivalist spirit over the weekend with perhaps the strongest program we’ve had from it -- two hours music and poetry that was rooted in Russia’s so-called Silver Age and carried over into the Stalinist era and beyond.
The composers on the bill were Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, Pärt and Schnittke. The poetry, read sometimes in Russian, sometimes in translation, by mezzo-soprano Tatyana Rashkovsky, included the work of Osip Mandelstam, Alexander Blok, and, most prominently, Anna Akhmatova, whose biography reads like a summary of what befell the country at large.
Performances at the Ethical Society Sunday were uniformly excellent. Rollin Wilber was in top form in three of Rachmaninoff’s Preludes from Op. 32, as was Kasia Marzec-Salwinski in Scriabin’s Sonata-Fantasy Op. 19 and four early Preludes by Schnittke, which have been discovered published only recently. (For all we know, Wilber said during the Q and A, it might have been a US premiere.)
Cellist Yoni Draiblate added sensitive readings of Schnittke’s Musica Nostalgica and Pärt’s Fratres, though I found the pieces themselves unremarkable. Rashkovsky, in songs by Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff, was thrilling.
It was a heavy afternoon, but Draiblate and Wilber ended it on a hopeful note with Rachmaninoff’s touching Vocalise, which, in context, felt like a pale ray of sunshine breaking through the gloom.
The poetry of oppression raised inevitable comparisons to current political situation in the US (the woman sitting in front of me wore a pink pussy cap), but Rashkovsky put it in perspective after the concert. She began life under the Brezhnev regime, she said, and very little can scare her now. While hardly a ringing endorsement of our new chief executive, it makes one grateful for large mercies.
One side note: Kasia and I had a disagreement over the meaning of this verse by Akhmatova, written in 1921:
Don’t torment your heart with earthly joys,
Don’t cling to your wife or your home,
Take the bread from your child
To give to a stranger.
And be the humblest servant of the one
Who was your bitterest foe,
And call the beast of the forest brother,
And don’t ask God for anything, ever.
Kasia saw it as advocating an otherwordly, Christlike ethic of selflessness and renunciation. I took it to be an ironic manifesto of the revolutionary regime, stating, in effect, that from now on life will be miserable, and one has no choice but to submit. I am strengthened in my opinion by the poem’s timing: It was written the same year Akhmatova’s former husband was executed by the Bolsheviks. One the other hand, I must admit my understanding of poetry has often been wide of the mark. I have a talent for missing the point. My college essay on Robinson’s “How Annandale Went Out,” for example, remains one of the signal embarrassments of my life.
Among the composers listed, at least two don't seem to qualify for the artistic martyrdom (or suffering) suggested in the post. Shostakovich glorified the murdersous Bolshevik regime in two early symphonies (long before his Pravda debacle). And Prokofiev - an immoral opportunist that he was - chose to return to Stalin's USSR in 1936, with early show trials and mass executions already well underway in that "Land of Victorious Proletariat". If there was a real artistic victim among Russian composers of that era, Nikolai Myasskovsky probably fits the bill best.
Mr. Boom, while I appreciate your point of view, I beg to differ. While I can't submit my own personal experience of dealing with a totalitarian regime - I was born after its worst, bloodiest purges - I can tell you that our (FAMC) aim was not to display the music and art of those who perished the most, but rather, how differently artists and composers were responding to many different aspects of oppression. Yes, Prokofiev was an opportunist and is an easy target, but I don't believe anyone can judge how much he did or did not suffer. You don't mention Schnittke as an opportunist, but - as Prokofiev - he worked for the Soviet movie industry. He stopped composing in the 12-tone idiom after it was condemned by the party's leadership - still, you don't mind this lack of integrity? Myaskovsky, on the other hand, enjoyed all the perks of the Soviet regime, was named the "Father of the Soviet Symphony" and awarded the Stalin Prize five times.
I don't think we should judge immense suffering of all these people, no matter their choices. What struck me the most when researching the poetry of Akhmatova and others was that their quest for maintaining their sanity, and moral clarity, was an everyday struggle. The onslaught of lies, propaganda, terror, famine, deaths of friends and children - and lack of trust and hope - was overwhelming. I don't believe we are in position to patronize the political choices of Prokofiev or Shostakovich. After all, composing a tune for Stalin didn't kill anyone...
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