Royal Festival Hall
Seven, they are Seven, op.30
Violin Concerto no.1 in D minor, op.19
Cantata for the Twentieth Anniverary of the October Revolution, op.74
David Butt Philip (tenor)
Pekka Kuusisto (violin)
Aidan Oliver (voice of Lenin, chorus director)
Crouch End Festival Chorus
Students of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (military band)
Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor)
The Philharmonia’s ‘Voices of Revolution’ concert series, programmed in the wake of celebrations for the hundredth anniversary of the October Revolution, reached its climax with a performance of Prokofiev’s Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of that revolution. First, however, we heard two highly contrasted works by the composer from 1917 itself: the much shorter cantata, Seven, they are Seven, and the First Violin Concerto (on whose material he had begun work two years earlier).
Seven, they are Seven (Semero ikh) received an exhilirating performance under Vladimir Ashkenazy, conductor of the entire series, joined by the equally fine David Butt Philip, Philharmonia Voices, and Crouch End Festival Chorus. Talk about starting in medias res! Here was a Russianised hymn to Mesopotamian paganism such as few of us, however feverish our imaginations, might otherwise have imagined, albeit with a materialist, nihilist bent the performers could not and should not shake off: the Scythian Suite rendered choral and, somehow, both more and less austere. Prokofiev’s clamour for a spirit world in which he clearly did not believe – hints of something later in the programme, or not? – looked forward to The Fiery Angel, and perhaps even beyond. Perhaps, though, the deepest, darkest music came with the relative hush towards the close: ‘Spirit of Heaven, conjure them’.
That Silver Age dying away into nothing seemed apt preparation for the Violin Concerto’s celebrated silver opening. ‘Febrile’ is a word I am sure I overuse. It is difficult, however, not to resort to it in describing Pekka Kuusisto’s performance, full of the most intense – perhaps, for some, too intense? – variegation in articulation and phrasing. Unfashionably, I have always preferred the concerto’s G minor successor; if this performance did not change my mind, it came closer than most and, indeed, seemed almost to highlight what the two works have in common rather than what distinguishes them. Moreover, its side-slipping harmonic progressions, especially in the first movement, seemed almost to incite metrical equivalents. The second movement proved truly a twentieth-century scherzo, with the musical – and technical – consequences implied. Bitter-sweet lyricism and much else one could imagine, whether a priori or a posteriori, characterised the finale. Kuusisto’s despatch of Prokofiev’s double-stopping was despatched with almost diabolically casual ease, he and Ashkenazy shaping and characterising the movement to a tee. Kuusisto’s encore improvisation on a Russian folksong, ‘Midnight in Moscow’, was perhaps for fans only – but he clearly, far from unreasonably, has a good few of them.
Then came the Cantata grand finale. Ashkenazy seems to have had it about right in an interview with The Daily Telegraph – remember when that was still occasionally a serious newspaper? – in 2003, telling Geoffrey Norris that the composer had ‘kind of welcomed what was happening in Russia and wanted to see the brighter side. He didn't want to see the tragedy. With this welcome back into his country, he felt he should do what the country wanted him to do.’ More specifically concerning the Cantata, Ashkenazy continued, ‘it wasn't … an obligation ... Some people say that he wanted to mock, but I don't think so. It's a great piece, one of his greatest achievements. His attitude was just to go along with the general flow.’ It is a fascinating piece, certainly; I am not entirely convinced that it was one of his greatest achievements, but it is far, far too good not to hear. And how the world has moved on since that interview: bar a few irreconcilables on the Right, we are mostly communists again now, albeit of very different stripes, from ‘fully automated luxury queer space’ to something a little more traditionally Stalinist. If the point, as Marx maintained in his Theses on Feuerbach, as heard here, were not just, as philosophers had done, to interpret the world, but to change it, then the progress socialism has made in just the last few years augurs well indeed. It still seems a little odd, perhaps, to watch a Festival Hall full of Home Counties concert-goers, celebrating Leninism, but none of them seemed to have a problem with doing so. Good for them, for who, in what is also Marx 200 year, is not now in some sense a Marxist? At any rate, surely none of us would have the grimly negative imagination – or perhaps you would? – to dream up a neoliberal cantata celebrating, say, Hayek, Thatcher, and May: perhaps one of those curious ‘Hecklers’ who once disrupted Birtwistle performances? Trump, perhaps, albeit in a gaudier, more ironic fashion: perhaps a commission for Helmut Lachenmann. As for a Blairite Third Way…
The opening sounded as if a socialist realist-ish Boris Godunov, the Philharmonia brass commendably ‘Russian’ in tone, albeit without raucousness. Whether that lack of roughness were an entirely good thing one may wonder; it is certainly Ashkenazy’s way. Listening afterwards, for instance, to Valery Gergiev in Rotterdam, I found more variety, perhaps something deeper, but it would be churlish to complain unduly, in what remained a highly accomplished performance. For Prokofiev’s late (late for him, that is) modernistic fragmentation retained degrees both of revolutionary disconcertion and of traditional grounding: surely Beethoven’s Ninth in the cellos that prepare the way for the choral entry: ‘massive’ here in every respect. Frozen, then thawing strings seemed also to pave the way for the ‘patriotic’ world soon to come, of Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible. Russia or socialism? You decide – or rather, Stalin will. Factory metal resounded, a reminder, perhaps of Mosolov, heard earlier in the series?
The lack of belief, in a strict sense, is quite different here from that of Shostakovich, and sounded as such. Whatever we think of the latter composer as ‘dissident’ or anything else, Prokofiev’s personality, musical and political, was of a very different nature, as side-slipping as those harmonies, which is not to impute cynicism, but perhaps to return us to Ashkenazy’s observations. (He, after all, unlike most of us, lived in the USSR.) And, just as in the Violin Concerto, Cinderella called too. There are no straight lines to draw in Prokofiev’s career; he did not come to write as he later did only on account of ‘external’ pressures. For there was belief of a sort: on hearing ‘We vow to you, Comrade Lenin…’ we did – if only, to quote Ashkenazy, ‘kind of’, at least whilst in thrall to Prokofiev’s stream of consciousness. Deafening: almost. Extraordinary: certainly.