Friday, May 22, 2015

En récital: Richter & Prokofiev

No. 199 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages can be found in our archives at

This week’s Podcast is an interesting study, an interesting exploration of a very specific time that has a deep influence on both our performer and the composer being featured.

I think we will all agree that, among the many traditions that make up Western Classical Music, the Russian tradition is rich with Nationalism and a distinct colour and – shall I say – fire. When we think of the Russian tradition, and especially of “Russian Nationalism” in music, we immediately think of the “Mighty Handful” – Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Mussorgsky and Cui – the small circle of St-Petersburg composers that made it their business to write music that was distinctly Russian and Nationalistic. We could add Tchaikovsky to that list, though he emanates from the “Moscow” school. Nonetheless, Tchaikovsky wasn’t necessarily writing music that was devoid of Nationalist (or even Tsarist) flavor.

Things change slightly with the 1917 Revolution, as we can then talk of a “Soviet” era – from 1917 to, say, 1990 with the advent of “Glasnost and Perestroika”. With the immense changes in the socio-political climate of what was once the Russian Empire, the repression and isolation imposed by dictators like Joseph Stalin has to have had an influence on the “Russian” music tradition. After all, many composers earned a living through the support of the Regime, who would commission works that needed to reflect the “Government message” – whatever that message was at that time. Works need to evoke the righteousness of the Regime’s values, or commemorate great events or milestones of the Post-Tsarist Soviet Union.

The musical voices of the day include Shostakovich, Kabalevsky, Khachaturian and, of course, Prokofiev. Prokofiev stands out in that list for two reasons – first, he trained under Alexander Goldenweiser at the Moscow Conservatory, a man who was himself trained and immersed in Tchaikovsky’s tradition and, secondly, in spite of having lived abroad after the Revolution, he and his family chose to return to Moscow in 1936.

If living and trying to earn a living in Stalin’s Soviet Union wasn’t enough of a challenge, the Second World War came, and Prokofiev was evacuated from Moscow together with a large number of other artists, to the Caucasus.

During the war years, restrictions on style and the demand that composers should write in a 'socialist realist' style were slackened, and Prokofiev was generally able to compose in his own way. In 1939, Prokofiev composed his Piano Sonatas Nos. 6, 7, and 8, Opp. 82–84, widely known today as the "War Sonatas." Biographer Daniel Jaffé argued that Prokofiev, "having forced himself to compose a cheerful evocation of the nirvana Stalin wanted everyone to believe he had created [... In these three sonatas, Prokofiev] expressed his true feelings".

Today’s podcast features that triptych of sonatas, performed by pianist Sviatoslav Richter who – along with Emil Gilels – can be thought of as the preeminent Soviet piano virtuoso of his time. Born in 1915, a few short years before the rise of the Soviet era, Richter trained in the 1920’s at the Odessa Conservatory. Richter’s father, a German expatriate pianist and organist probably was influential in his early musical training, which may explain why Richter was quite adept in music of both Austro-German and Russian traditions. 

In 1949 Richter won the Stalin Prize, which led to extensive concert tours in Russia, Eastern Europe and China. He gave his first concerts outside the Soviet Union in Czechoslovakia in 1950. Having received the Stalin and Lenin (1961) prizes and become People's Artist of the USSR (1955), he gave his first tour concerts in the USA in 1960, and in England and France in 1961, returning regularly to the West to perform and to record.

Richter explained his approach to performance as follows: "The interpreter is really an executant, carrying out the composer's intentions to the letter. He doesn't add anything that isn't already in the work. If he is talented, he allows us to glimpse the truth of the work that is in itself a thing of genius and that is reflected in him. He shouldn't dominate the music, but should dissolve into it."

In these performances of the War Sonatas, one of which he premiered and that he championed as a whole since their inception, this is exactly what Sviatoslav Richter does: he lends Prokofiev his voice, allowing him to express the despair and pathos of his life, and the life of the Soviet people as only he could.

I think you will love this music too.