Russian Music – Beauty Out of Chaos


This week Mahlerman introduces some of the great music that emerged from the chaos of Soviet and post-Soviet Russia…

Few will argue that the 19th Century became a Golden Age for Russian Literature, and similarly it was not until around the 1860’s, after the death of the so-called father of Russian music Mikhail Glinka, that a true symphonic language emerged with the first symphonies of Tchaikovsky and Borodin. The 20th Century produced Rachmaninov and Scriabin at its birth and later Prokofiev and Shostakovitch, but at the death of that great master in 1975 the field was thin indeed. I, for one, expected this turbulent race, fighting or revolting, starving or collapsing, to continue producing great composers into the present century but, with a handful of exceptions, this has not happened. Today we take a look at some of those exceptions.

Although an acknowledged admirer of Dimitri Shostakovitch, the Ukrainian Valentin Silvestrov treads very much his own unique path. The pianist Alexei Lubimov remarked that ‘there is so little in the lines, but so very much between them’, and this is surely the key that unlocks this very personal music. Unlike anything heard before it (except perhaps Schubert), La Belle Dame Sans Merci, from the cycle Five Songs, on a poem by John Keats, hangs in the air like a wraith, shadowy and insubstantial. You will wait in vain for the static air to move, for some sense that you are being led somewhere; you are not. It would not achieve the devastating finality we hear in this recording without a voice such as the baritone Sergey Yakovenko and his magical partner, the pianist Ilya Scheps. Listen and weep.

The Soviet composer Alfred Schnittke who died in 1998, also admired Shostakovitch, and though born in Engels in the Lower Volga, he was from German-Jewish stock. He developed close friendships with the leading string players in Russia, writing a marvellous Viola Concerto for the violist Yuri Bashmet, violin concertos for Gidon Kremer, and two ‘cello concerti for the late Mstislav Rostropovich. His monumental first symphony put him on the musical world-map, and between strokes and other illness, he composed music in every form, including opera. Almost impossible to sample such complex works in our limited time-format but here, from the hauntingly simple Piano Quintet of 1976, the spooky final fifth movement Moderato Pastorale played by the composer’s wife Irina with the violinist Mark Lubotsky.

The poet, virtuoso pianist and composer Lera Auerbach was born in Chelyabinsk in The Urals almost 40 years ago, but today she lives in America. Something of a prodigy, she composed her first opera at the age of eleven, going on to become one of the last Russians to defect to the West when, at the age of 17, she decided not to return home from studying at the Julliard in New York. Her compositions sound very much like work in progress, but I sense that in the years ahead she may develop into something quite special. Here, in a rather poor recording of a public concert, the second movement Post tenebras lux from her First Symphony ‘Quimera’.

Another emigre to the US from Russia was Milton Resnick [above ‘Untitled’ 1990. Acrylic on Paper] whose marvellous, mystical abstracts serve as a backdrop to Morning Prayers, for Chamber Orchestra & Tape (a boy’s voice) by the great Georgian poet of sound Giya Kancheli. This devotional music is the first part of a four-part cycle from the early 1990’s titled ‘Life Without Christmas’. Much of Kancheli’s orchestral music is littered with influences, both from Georgian folk song and, more obviously, from his great compatriot Shostakovitch – but it possesses an unpredictability that has become something of a fingerprint in his work; long passages of calm contemplation punctuated by short, sharp shocks of violent interjection. Even here, while striving for a kind-of religious ecstasy, be ready for a couple of surprises. I make no apology for including this piece which, at twenty-three minutes is by far the longest post I have made in an almost three year odyssey; I couldn’t bring myself to cut any part of it.

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About Author Profile: Mahlerman

Mahlerman's life was shaped by his single mother, who never let complete ignorance of a subject get in the way of having strong opinions about it. Facing retirement after a life in what used to be called 'trade', and having a character that consists mainly of defects, he spends his moments of idleness trying to correct them, one by one.

8 thoughts on “Russian Music – Beauty Out of Chaos

    April 14, 2013 at 18:02

    All very atmospheric and I can imagine them sound tracking a suitably depressing tartovsky type film where five old women fight in a muddy field over a mouldy potato. I mean that in the best possible way, as I love films like that!

    John Halliwell
    April 14, 2013 at 19:49

    ‘……. the baritone Sergey Yakovenko and his magical partner, the pianist Ilya Scheps. Listen and weep.’ Well, I listened, MM; didn’t quite weep, but was certainly moved. I’m sure the best Russian baritones and basses could wring emotion out of Knees up Mother Brown.

    As you suggest, the multi-talented Lera Auerbach seems to be a work in progress; let’s hope she will one day be spoken of in the same breath as other Russians who moved abroad. I’m thinking particularly of Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky. But that is, perhaps, asking too much. As I listened, and thought of the influence on her of Shostakovich, I wondered if she would, one day, be drawn back to her homeland. One gets the impression that Russians carry with them an indelible emotional imprint of the old country. I recalled I’d read of Stravinsky’s feelings when he returned to Russia in 1962 after an absence of fifty years:

    ‘The smell of the Russian earth is different, and such things are impossible to forget…..A man has one birthplace, one fatherland, one country – he can have only one country – and the place of his birth is the most important factor in his life. I regret that circumstances separated me from my fatherland, that I did not give birth to my works here and, above all, that I was not here to help the new Soviet Union create its new music. I did not leave Russia of my own will, even though I disliked much in my Russia and in Russia generally. Yet the right to criticize Russia is mine, because Russia is mine and because I love it, and I do not give any foreigner that right.’

    Thanks for another superb post, MM.

    April 14, 2013 at 20:16

    Your Stravinsky quote (thank you) JH reminded me of the somewhat sentimental return of his near contemporary V Horowitz who ‘returned’ in his eighties to ‘say goodbye’ to the country of his birth, the country he loved and left – and of course the old wizard was welcomed rapturously everywhere he went. The Russian people’s union with music is, in my experience, a special and unique case. There are folk living on very little in the depths of Siberia who know their Tchaikovsky, who know their Rachmaninov.

    John Halliwell
    April 14, 2013 at 21:23

    I forgot to mention, MM, that in the chapter containing the Stravinsky quote there is reference to his meeting during that visit with Shostakovich. It took place at a banquet for Stravinsky at the Metropole Hotel in Moscow. Khachaturian recalled:

    ‘They were placed next to each other and sat in complete silence. I sat opposite them. Finally, Shostakovich plucked up the courage and opened the conversation:

    ‘What do you think of Puccini?’
    ‘I can’t stand him,’ Stravinsky replied.
    ‘Oh, and neither can I, neither can I,’ said Shostakovich.

    That was virtually all the two men said.

    April 15, 2013 at 11:15

    Bet Khachaturian loved Puccini!

    April 15, 2013 at 16:09

    Very nice selection, though I feel Vladimir Martynov’s Come In is an exceptional piece of work, monotonous in the all the right ways, though gradually changing as the piece cycles through itself over and over again, and I particularly like the recording by his wife with Opus Posth.

    April 15, 2013 at 21:55

    Well, here’s a thing DK. My shortlist was ten different Russian composers of the 20th/21st Century. After a lot of scratching around I got it down to five. One had to go, and it was between Lera Auerbach and a Russian bloke I didn’t know, but whose music sounded interesting……but a bit safe. Pointedly tonal, fine tune(s), rather filmic, rather…, like Bergerac and Midsomer Murders. So he had to go – but I really liked Come In and I will return to V Martynov and explore some more.

    April 16, 2013 at 14:31

    I love dissonance as much as the next man, but Martynov bears some exploration. I saw him perform live many times at a weird avant garde club in Moscow and his music ranges from the very melodic (Come In) to stuff that is fairly enervating and repetitive, and some weird folky stuff that makes grating use of female folk singers. He spends a lot of time in a monastery outside Moscow and in the Opus PosTH recording the scriptural sources of “Come In” are very apparent, to great effect IMHO.

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