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

An evening of Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Khachaturian.

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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. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.

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