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Playing the unplayable: the composers whose work and lives were threatened under Stalin

An evening of Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Khachaturian.

Andrei Zhdanov, the architect of Stalin’s cultural policy, is credited with originating one of the most chilling sentences ever applied to art: “The only conflict that is possible in Soviet culture is the conflict between the good and the best.” Artists whose work was considered anything less than “good” ceased to exist, persecuted out of sight.

Under the Zhdanov doctrine, everything was either “imperialistic” (ie, Western) or “democratic”. His edict came into force in 1946 and survived as long as Stalin. A specific campaign against “formalism” in music (anything the regime didn’t approve of) was launched in 1948, and composers writing insufficiently revolutionary or nationalistic music came under attack.

This is what unites the three composers that the conductor Vasily Petrenko chose to put on the programme that began his tenth year with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (RLPO). Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Khachaturian shared more than citizenship or a musical style – all three had their work and their lives threatened under Stalin. In the early 1940s, although Zhdanov had focused his attentions closely on the perceived Western artistic decadence of Leningrad, the likes of Shostakovich continued to be able to compose. Post-1945, as Soviet ideological control was asserted once more, writing and publishing music the authorities didn’t approve of became impossible.

In his selections for this programme, Petrenko gave us glimpses of the music that the three men were able to write in spite of, or perhaps because of, the political restrictions of the time. After cheery waves from orchestra members to the audience – typical of the relaxed and unpretentious atmosphere of RLPO performances – we began in 1917, with Prokofiev’s Symphony No 1, a compact, 13-minute effusion of neoclassical, Mozartian flourishes.

The composer had spent the first three years of the First World War studying at the St Petersburg conservatoire, but by 1917 the coming revolution had made the city too dangerous. He retired to the fashionable spa town of Kislovodsk.

Working without access to a piano, he settled upon the idea of drawing on Haydn’s through-composition techniques to write a symphony. The resulting work, performed here with great control and precision by the RLPO, even through the flurrying fury of the final movement, was hailed by a Soviet minister as “revolutionary”. A week later, Prokofiev fled the Soviet Union for what turned out to be 18 years in exile.

The joyful humour of Prokofiev’s first symphony is echoed in the work that followed it in the programme for the night. Written four decades later, Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No 2 is a riot of jaunty tunes and self-parody. In the hands of the internationally acclaimed soloist Boris Giltburg, the cheerful themes of the first movement hummed and shifted, rousing the orchestra to respond in kind. In the third movement, too, Giltburg’s minute attention to detail, coupled with Petrenko’s focused control of the orchestra, kept all seven beats of the bar in glorious time. But it was in the second movement that the tremendous feeling these musicians have for the piece came through most clearly. With its lyrical, sonorous theme reminiscent of Rachmaninov, supported by sombre descending notes in the cellos and basses, you could hear this was music that mattered to Shostakovich.

Giltburg stayed on stage for Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No 1, joined by the trumpeter Rhys Owens. Written in 1933, over 20 years before its successor, this piece is far more typically in the Shostakovich style, packed with borrowings from sources as disparate as Mahler and contemporary jazz. Petrenko kept a very tight leash on his orchestra, allowing the soloists to do most of the work. What we ended up with was a rather mismatched duel between Giltburg’s flashing virtuosity and Owens’s rather pedestrian sound. In the music, the trumpet’s fanfare is supposed to regiment and rein in the piano’s more extreme flights of fancy. Here, the piano danced away triumphant.

It was clear that Petrenko had relaxed on the podium by the time we reached the final piece for the evening – Khachaturian’s suite from his 1942 ballet, Gayane. Where previously the conductor’s movement had been minimal and precise, for this he let himself get swept up with the rhythms of the various dances. The suite, and the evening, culminated in the orchestra’s spirited performance of the “Sabre Dance”. Familiar from its use in dozens of films and television programmes, it defied the Zhdanov doctrine by becoming a jukebox hit in the US in 1948. It is surely not a coincidence that after Petrenko and his orchestra took in the rapturous applause, that was the tune that followed us out into the night. 

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Should Labour split?

Marc Brenner
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Carey Mulligan is oddly unemotional in Dennis Kelly’s powerful new play, Girls & Boys

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, don’t read this review.

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, then you should do two things. First, come back to this review: it’s a production best seen with no preconceptions. Second: have a child.

Still here? Good, because there is no way to discuss this play without spoiling its big reveal. It opens with Carey Mulligan centre stage, in orange shirt and red trousers, against set designer Es Devlin’s boxy backdrop of purest cyan. It’s a palette favoured by Hollywood posters, because the contrast is so striking. (Van Gogh once used it on a still life of crabs.) Mulligan’s unnamed narrator tells us how she met her husband, who is only ever “he”. Her monologue starts off funny – “Paris? Call that a world city? It’s Leeds with wider streets” – and sexually frank, but it’s also cleverly disconcerting.

She met him in an Easyjet queue and “took an instant dislike to the man”. Why? Because he was obliviously buried in a book – or because of his interaction with two models, who tried to queuejump by feigning sexual interest to stand next to him? (“And he’s just like, well of course… but I get to sleep with one of you, right?”) One of the models snottily tells him that she would never sleep with a Normal like him, and he acknowledges the truth of this. Then he calls them “bitches” for playing with his feelings, makes a chivalrous speech about the transcendence of loving sex, and suggests that sleeping with them would be “necrophilia… wanking into a pretty dress”. The temptation is to cheer – he put those stuck-up cows in their place! – and I wondered if my disquiet was evidence I’ve gone full Millie Tant. (Beware men who think there are some women to whom it’s OK to be sexist.)

But no. The husband is indeed a wrong ‘un. Mulligan’s monologues are interspersed with role-plays against another pure-cyan set; a living room, with details – a sippy cup, a blanket – again picked out in orange. She chides her children, Leanne and Danny, talking to the empty air about their petty squabbles. And then, halfway through the 90-minute running time, comes the punch: “I know they’re not here by the way. My children… I know they’re dead.” My mind went instantly to a routine by Louis CK. “A woman saying yes to a date with a man is literally insane,” the comedian says. “Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. If you’re a guy, imagine you could only date a half-bear-half-lion.”

The narrator’s story, of a relationship going sour, is achingly familiar. Her burgeoning career, and growing confidence; the failure of his business, and his consequent loss of status. She asks for a divorce. He tells her: “There will never come a time when you have my kids and I don’t.” One night, he sweet-talks his way past the babysitter and twists a knife into little Danny’s heart, guiding it in with his thumbnail, before stabbing Leanne eight times. (Mulligan marks each wound on her body.) He tries to kill himself.

My friends with kids tell me that giving birth rewired them, leaving them reluctant to watch any drama with children in peril. To me, Mulligan seemed oddly unemotional in recounting these horrors; but perhaps a parent’s imagination would supply all the horror required.

Is it a coincidence that this play had its premiere at the Royal Court, where artistic director Vicky Featherstone has led the theatre world’s response to a reckoning with sexual harassment? Her code of conduct outlines potentially abusive behaviour, from the obvious – “physical force or threat of force, for sexual action” – to the situational: “staring, meaningful glances”. Yet Dennis Kelly’s script, which depicts one poison drop of sexism blossoming into a manifestation of the most extreme masculine rage, shows how difficult such behaviour is to police. When should the narrator have seen the danger? How can women sort the good from the bad?

In an industry convulsed by a feminist reckoning, I was left wondering if a female playwright would have dared to write lines as starkly confrontational as the narrator’s conclusion: “We didn’t create society for men. We created it to stop men.”

Girls & Boys runs until 17 March.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia