The Russians aren’t coming

New music was not officially muted in the Soviet Union. It just got left at home, says Norman Lebrecht

On Music

This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.


Around the turn of the century, I was approached by a London orchestra with a view to freshening up its repertoire. Having made a study of composers under the Soviet system, I proposed a series titled Other Russia, music of the greatest originality that was unknown for one reason or another outside its homeland. Some of the composers were still absent from major Western reference works.

There was the reclusive Galina Ustvolskaya, a Shostakovich student who rejected his attentions and refused to leave home for years; the Moscow mystic Alemdar Karamanov whose life changed one morning when he heard Jesus preach from the roof of the Post Office building; the Georgian Giya Kancheli who wrote symphonies of bristling intensity; and the two Borises, Tishchenko and Tchaikovsky, each giving voice to the distinctive mindsets of Leningrad and Moscow.

The narrative of a brutal state suppressing dissident voices was never that simple

None was officially silenced by the regime, or not for very long. Their music was recorded on Melodiya and was well-known among Russian musicians. When I first looked into the prolific output of Mieczyslaw Weinberg, I found that many professionals played his string quartets at home, unaware that he had written 26 symphonies and seven operas.

Gritty works by Alfred Schnittke, full of anti-authoritarian barbs, were smuggled abroad to German publishers and read as samizdat back home. Much as the Kremlin tried to control composers, good music found a way out.

The Kremlin controller was Tikhon Khrennikov, secretary of the Union of Soviet Composers, a man whose own splashy scores might well have been written by committee. Khrennikov had spearheaded Stalin’s anti-Shostakovich campaign in 1948 and was still in charge in the 1990s.

He loathed Schnittke with a venom that was part incomprehension, part envy, part antisemitism. But for all that he prevented the composer from attending premieres abroad he could not block his music in the Soviet Union.

When Khrennikov cancelled Schnittke’s first symphony in Moscow, the conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky loaded 100 musicians on an overnight train and premiered the work in Nizhny-Novgorod, 350 miles to the east.

Khrennikov was no match for the new winds of modernism. A 1963 visit by Luigi Nono, son-in-law of Arnold Schoenberg and a member of the Italian Communist Party central committee, set atonality loose in the Moscow Conservatoire to the extent that even a docile composer like Edison Denisov was teaching it. A concert tour by Pierre Boulez electrified the Soviet Union.

The Estonian Arvo Pärt, rebuked by Khrennikov for using serialist techniques, turned to writing devotional Christian music in an irresistibly hypnotic minimalist style. Along with Schnittke, Pärt quickly made a name for himself outside Russia.

What blocked the rest? Market forces. The state agency Gosconcert proposed concerts to impresarios in London and New York who were not keen to lose money on unknown composers whom Gosconcert anyway did not want to export. A commercial complicity prevailed.

After the disintegration of the workers’ paradise, many composers migrated west in hope of a better life and a warmer reception — Schnittke and Sofiya Gubaidulina to Hamburg, Kancheli to Antwerp, Nikolai Korndorf to Canada, Dmitri Smirnov and Elena Firsova to London. At the time I was planning Other Russia, many were still alive and eager to participate.

The impediment I encountered in 2002 was no longer Marxism. I discussed the project with four well-known Russian conductors, all of whom spoke warmly of the composers I had chosen and praised their music in great detail — up to the point where I suggested they conduct them, at which point excuses flowed like vodka in a Chekhov dacha. The music was too long, too short, too loud, too quiet, too slow to deliver a climax that might fail to project the conductor as hero.

Musicians assured me it had been just the same back in the USSR. Other than Rozhdestvensky, who stuck his neck out for Schnittke, and Neeme Järvi who carried the baton for Pärt, it was hard to name a single conductor who put new music ahead of self-interest. The forced expulsion in 1972 of the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich put an instant dampener on the commissioning of new concertos.

The narrative of a brutal state suppressing dissident voices was never that simple. New music was not officially muted. It just got left at home when Soviet musicians played away.

Valentin Berlinsky’s newly-translated memoir, A Quartet for Life (Kahn & Averill, £18.95), gives a vivid account of the Borodin Quartet’s involvement in Moscow with Schnittke, Weinberg, Shebalin, Galynin and quite a few others who never featured on their world tours. Musicians, then as now, preferred to play what the public would pay for and promised the composers their time would come.

It just has. The Lithuanian conductor Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla is leading the line this year for Weinberg, whose twenty-first symphony in her Birmingham recording has just won a Gramophone award on the DG label. The French pianist Hélène Grimaud has conceived a late passion for the timeless meditations of the Ukrainian Valentin Silvestrov, which are featured this month on the same DG label.

Munich-based ECM has taken up the Armenian Tigran Mansurian, alongside the contemplative Alexander Knaifel and the ever-absorbing Kancheli, Schnittke and Pärt. You may well be listening to them unawares on the radio as you read this article. A major work by Gubaidulina, The Wrath of God, was premiered last month in locked-down Vienna and watched worldwide on livestream. Nikolai Kapustin lived just long enough last summer to see his cello concerto released on record. There is renewed interest in Smirnov, who died in Britain’s first Covid wave.

When Kancheli died in October 2019, having returned to his native Georgia, the violinist Gidon Kremer eulogised his “chords of kindness and hope”, an expression that differentiated him from every other voice of his time.

What stands out among Other Russia’s lost composers is a stubborn individuality that enabled them to survive the minor nuisance of state interference and the nefarious neglect by those whose duty it was to give their music to the world. Don’t blame Marx. Blame the maestros.

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